Carnegie Mellon University

"The Truth from my Chair" by Uduak Obong-Eren

Honorable Mention for College Prose

10:30 am was the time when the alarm chimed again for the fourth time after I had snoozed it several times earlier; I guess I was justified to sleep in a little more after a 23-hour flight from Lagos through Paris to California.

A mix of anxiety and excitement, of fear and hope flooded my mind; my adventure was about to begin. Yes, I thought of it as an adventure, leaving my country for an environment where I knew absolutely no one in search of knowledge. Many well-meaning individuals advised me to follow the safe route by choosing a university where many Nigerians attended, possibly in the UK where my fellow recipients of the Nigerian scholarship chose to study, but I chose to go against the grain. Some thought my decision was bold, others thought I was just being foolhardy. Whether my decision was a good one or not, I was going to find out. Still musing and managing these thoughts, I grabbed my tablet to check the directions to CMU campus (to Siri actually, as she was the only person I was in communication with).

As I walked to the train station, the adventure wasn’t going bad, I thought to myself. But that changed in a few minutes as I got on the train and met a woman (of a different skin color) who stared at me intently like she was startled to see me there. I turned around with the hope that there was something behind me she wasn’t pleased about, but I couldn’t find any. As I walked in search of a seat on the train, I felt the stare follow me and it seemed to be echoing the words “What the heck are you doing here?” I eventually found a seat on the train which I quickly sank into. And though the stare continued, I felt a little at ease that the seat on the train at least accepted me regardless of my color. And that was my introduction to the reality of racism.

As I got on with life at CMU during my first few weeks, I had the challenge of finding an apartment to live in. Using the popular Craigslist, I had made a few contacts, however it didn’t take me long to discover that whatever progress I had made always came to naught the moment I mentioned that I was an international student from Africa. So I thought up a new strategy: not to include any information about my race in future correspondence, and things did improve almost immediately. I remember returning from a showing with one landlord and I was entirely positive this was going to work. Walking into my hotel room, I got a text from him saying I was not qualified for the apartment. “Suddenly I am not qualified? Why am I not qualified? What did I have to do to prove I was qualified? Would I be qualified if I was from a different race?” I sent him text messages but got no response; slowly as I sank into my chair besides the dressing mirror, thoughts of despair filled my mind as I pondered why I wasn’t qualified.

Fast forward a few weeks later, it was already 9 weeks into the semester and I was struggling with understanding some concepts in CMU’s flagship course 15213.  Being an online course, it was hard to know the other students taking the course; and I needed some form of group study with other classmates. A very helpful classmate offered to talk to one of her roommates who was taking the course (and who was part of a study group) about the possibility of joining their study group. I was elated and thankful that at last, I would get some help. Days passed and the next time I got a chance to talk with her after a class, she tried to put it a nice way but the message was clear – they didn’t want me to be a part of the group (apparently they were all from a particular race and I wasn’t). I smiled at her, thanked her for her efforts and slowly walked towards the chair just outside the classroom while battling to answer the questions that echoed in my mind: “Am I really not good enough? Do I really have anything to offer?” Thankfully, the chair found me good enough and I found comfort in its fluffy seats since it always accepted me without judging if I had anything to offer. As you rightly guessed, my relationship with the chair was steadily blossoming.

Happily, the spring semester rolled in quickly. It was a pretty difficult semester as I struggled to concentrate through challenges that almost terminated my studies. The challenges indeed impacted on my availability for classes and team projects but I tried to make sure the impact wasn’t much. On this particular team in one of my courses, every other person on the team was from a particular race and I was the only person from a different race. That wasn’t in anyway a problem because we worked together pretty well, or so I thought, until the day I stumbled on one of the team member’s LinkedIn profile. I was shocked to see that though he had listed every other person on his profile as a team member on the project we all worked on. I wasn’t listed.  Needless to say, at this point, I was already torn between two choices – whether to accept these acts as a part of life knowing that it was always going to happen or to keep trying to understand the motivation behind these acts with the hope that things would get better. Whichever way I ended up choosing, one this was sure: every experience I faced increased my ‘comfort’ with my chair and made me gradually withdraw from people of other race. At least my chair didn’t judge me and I didn’t have to prove myself over and over again to it, or so I thought.

Alas! It was only a chair. It was only a chair, but a useful one. Moments of thinking from that chair brought me to realize that racism is often an outward manifestation of a deeper trend—our reaction to discomfort. As biologists would say, when humans are faced with a situation of discomfort their response is either fight or flight. I learned that not all humans are entirely racist, we just process discomfort differently – some “fight” it, seeing persons from a different race as an “enemy” and some “flight” it, withdrawing from others of different races. It indeed takes a higher human to rise above the basest instincts of the human soul to learn to live with another human being of a different race. As I squirmed in my chair processing these thoughts, I told myself the hard truth: I would equally be guilty if I allowed these situations make me withdraw from people of other races and limit myself to the comfort of my chair. So there I made the decision to take a walk from my chair. No, I wasn’t breaking up with it. Rather, I was not going to allow it define me.

So I arose from the coziness of my chair and out of that “comfortable” mindset that I had to withdraw from people of other races. I arose to a new outlook on the world that strives to appreciate the beauty in people from a different race. Surely there have been times that I made a trip back to my chair but I am encouraged by the very beautiful relationships I have made since that decision; relationships with individuals who in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to judge me by the color of my skin but by the content of my character: an Indian lady who gifted me with a friendship so true; a Turkish professor who inspires me to be better academically; an American counselor who provides me sound counsel at critical moments in my life. They are all amazing people who, by reason of relating with, I have become a better person.

So my heart goes out to that freshman who just received a racist text message and to that sophomore who is facing rejection from his mates. You don’t have to hide in the comfort of your chair, neither do you have to ‘fight’ back. You don’t have to keep telling yourself that you are limited because of your skin color. Rise out of your chair and from any mindset that makes you think you are limited. No, you are not. Do not live to validate the stereotypes of what anyone thinks your race should be. Do not even try to prove them wrong or prove them right; your life is worth much more than trying to validate or not validate those stereotypes. There is so much you have to offer our world and every challenge you face just serves to make a better you. You are white and you are wonderful, you are black and you are bold, you are Asian and you are amazing, you are Indian and you are intelligent, you are Spanish and you are stunning. And no, these aren’t stereotypes, these are just a bit of your awesomeness—you are the best of you anyone has seen. So get up out of that chair and live your dreams!

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